By David Blanchette
Ruby Davis was born in Mississippi, where she worked chopping cotton before leaving home at age 15 to get married. Two years later, her mother and sister were killed in a car accident, and her father died the following year. Those experiences of loss inspired her to work with other grieving families. After obtaining her degree in mortuary science, she went on to complete a doctorate in business administration. Davis worked for funeral homes in Chicago, and later Springfield, before opening her own business in 2015. Since then, she has focused on expanding the business, with a second phase involving a community center nearly complete.
Where were you born and raised, and what was your early life like?
I was born and raised in Drew, Mississippi. I was blessed, I was raised in a two-parent home and as we got older, we of course had to chop cotton like most of the people in the South did. After that I went to school for a while. I left home early; I left when I was 15, I wanted to be married. So I didn’t have a lot of child life there because most of my teenage years I was already married.
I left the South in 1984 and moved to Springfield. After I divorced, I moved to Chicago and lived for about 20 years. That’s when I got my schooling done to become a funeral director and embalmer. Then I started out in Chicago working in the funeral industry.
Why did you decide to enter the funeral business?
In 1986, I was a teenager at the time, my mom and my sister were killed in a car accident. And I did not like the way they looked at the funeral. So I was just curious, what did they do behind the scenes to make them look so bad? At the funeral that is your last look, that is your memory, and it wasn’t good for me.
Back then, 36 years ago, they didn’t have the cosmetics and everything they have now to get that final, good look at the end, that memorable look. I didn’t have that with my mother and sister. I don’t even have a vivid picture in my mind of what that double service looked like.
Do you use that experience to help your clients get a good, final look at their loved ones?
Oh yes, that’s important. I go to extremes to make sure that the day before the service when they come in, I put everything I have into it to make sure that preview is going to be right. Because that’s what you are going to remember. You see, for me, I didn’t remember anything.
How do you interact with people while they are experiencing some of the toughest times of their lives?
It’s more of a ministry type of position. I can kind of relate to them. I’m not saying I know how they feel, but I lost my parents at an early age. My mom and sister got killed, and a year later my dad died, and I was still a teenager. I had so much death and loss throughout my life, so it’s like God gives me the words to say to calm them down at the time when it is needed.
How have you expanded your business, Ruby Funeral Services & Crematories?
Once I opened my business in 2014, I knew my chapel would not be big enough for the community. The existing chapel only seated 200, and that’s not big. My goal was always to extend it out to at least 400 to 500 people to accommodate all of the family members, especially the ones that might not go to church. Because a lot of people don’t go to church, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have a nice funeral service.
So I started on phase one in 2019 when the business was located at 1520 E. Washington St. I expanded the chapel. I added crematories for both humans and pets; everything downstairs was brought upstairs. My embalming room, a four-car garage, all of that was brought on one level. I completed all of that in 2020.
Now I am working on phase two. We started in 2021 and it should be complete this summer. Phase two is Ruby’s Recreational Community Center, a banquet hall and community center. The banquet hall will seat between 250 to 300 people. You can have life celebrations there, brunches, family reunions, baby showers or wedding receptions. It’s open to the public for any of that.
Do you have a pet peeve as a business owner?
A lot of people don’t like to follow the rules. For instance, I feel florists should come in on the day of the funeral service. But a lot of the flower shops want to drop them off one or two days ahead of time and when I tell them ‘no,’ they start telling me what the other funeral homes do. But I’m not the other funeral homes! My rule is, flowers come in the day of the funeral service.
If it’s going to be at a church, take the flowers to the church. Don’t bring them here so we have to transport them again to the church.
Have you experienced prejudice as a Black business owner?
People do it in a subtle way. Just a little bit, not much. But I’ve learned to look past that because I understand that’s just going to be the way it is, regardless. It doesn’t change me, because I wasn’t raised like that. In my eyes everybody is the same.
How have you been involved in the community?
I am affiliated with my church, Abundant Faith Christian Center, and make community donations. I don’t get to do a lot of in-person volunteering because I have to run my business. The business doors are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but I answer my phone 24 hours a day.
And when I don’t have a funeral service on a Saturday, that means I have the whole weekend off to come up with ideas to better the business or do other things.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
I’m a country girl who used to chop cotton. I am the first one in my family to own a funeral business. My son, Sammie Lee Wright, Jr., has come aboard as the crematory operator and I want to get him familiar with everything. And he has three boys who are teenagers, and my goal is for his sons to have their first jobs in here.
What advice would you give to young people today?
Stay dedicated and committed to whatever you decide to do. Consistency is the key. It’s not going to be easy, because if it was easy everybody would be doing it.
What would you like to have on your tombstone?
Job well done.